By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Far from satisfied as plucky pursuers of state volleyball supremacy, Santa Rosa Junior College could have the program’s strongest squad yet for a championship run.
Practices provide some of the toughest preparation as Santa Rosa aims for a return to the California Community College Athletic Association finals.
“We have a lot of depth. We have so much competition at each position. It keeps everyone alert of how hard they have to work,” said Kristyn Casalino, who prepped at Maria Carrillo and is returning at middle blocker. “We’re definitely ready to do what it takes.”
Two consecutive losses in the state title game — both to L.A. Pierce College — provide powerful motivation. Also a more physically fit group this season, the Bear Cubs want to play their strongest when the matches count the most.
“We’re very determined. We’re tired of being second place and runner-up,” said ex-Analy star Briana Adviento, a returning starter at libero.
Much work remains for Santa Rosa to regain the great results of the past two campaigns.
Ranked second in the state to open the 2012 season, Santa Rosa is now ninth — fifth in Northern California — after two non-league losses to fellow regional powerhouses Fresno City and Feather River. A win over Cabrillo, another top NorCal squad, reflects the Bear Cubs’ difficult schedule.
Nothing easy remains on the road to a return to the state community college final four. Santa Rosa plays in a league — the Big8 Conference — boasting four teams in the latest state Top 25 rankings.
“The Big 8 Conference for volleyball is the most competitive in the north, quite possibly the state,” said Santa Rosa coach Kelly Wood.
With only a few returning starters, Santa Rosa has worked a strong group of first-year players into a team ready for the rigors of conference play.
“We’re trying to mesh and play together as a team,” Adviento said. “Playing in a pretty tough conference gets us ready for the playoffs.”
The work began with spring and summer fitness programs totaling nearly 12 hours, two days weekly of volleyball, weight lifting, conditioning and more volleyball.
“Last year we were really gassed at the end. We need to be tougher for that last match,” Adviento said.
On the court, Santa Rosa has a deep rotation of hitters, blockers, defensive specialists and servers.
Powerful on offense, the Bear Cubs are led by returning all-conference outside hitter and state finals standout Olivia Urban, from San Marin High.
“We expect very big things from her this year. She should be a force,” Wood said. “Teams are already keying on her when we play against them.”
Casalino comes off a season as one of the state’s top middle blockers.
“She’s a great leader, work ethic, huge offensive threat,” Wood said.
Helping lead the defense is Adviento at libero.
“Briana’s leadership and volleyball IQ will be a huge asset to this year’s team,” Wood said.
Santa Rosa’s defense is working to catch up with the offense, both in blocking and on the back row. Limiting errors and making opponents earn points is critical, particularly in the playoffs when little separates teams.
“We all have a lot to work on to get better as a team,” Casalino said. “We need to execute our plays and make sure we end the play and make those points.”
With newcomers pushing for playing time, Santa Rosa should only get better.
Having guided Santa Rosa to 10 consecutive NorCal playoffs since taking over, Wood is confident the Bear Cubs have the skill and depth to win some postseason matches. The top two teams from NorCal and SoCal make up the state final four — Santa Rosa has been there five times under Wood.
“The girls are fiercely competitive. Our practices are more competitive than we are used to having, and with our depth we should grow a lot this season,” Wood said.
In last year’s campaign, Santa Rosa held form to reach the final four as the NorCal second seed. After losing the semifinal to L.A. Pierce, the Bear Cubs won two loser’s bracket matches to reach the championship contest.
“We definitely know what it takes,” Casalino said. “We’re pretty skillful as a group, but we’re also very young. Throughout the season we’re just working to peak toward the end.”
STELLAR BEAR CUBS
The SRJC women’s volleyball program is among the state’s best:
Record: 10-2 overall, 2-0 in Big 8
Rankings: ninth in California, fifth in Northern California
Next matches: At Cosumnes River, 6:30 p.m. Wednesday; home vs. Delta, 6:30 p.m. Friday.